THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT #9: FRENCH IMMERSION

BRIT ANDERSON for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT

It is often difficult to understand the motivations of previous generations. For example, looking through a family lineage, surnames are not always fixed from one generation to another, changing for a variety of reasons. The same can be said for identity. Here is a story about re-embracing French Canadian identity in Ontario and, through an immersion program, choosing French as the language of daily life.––ed

My family was always a confusing bunch. My father was the oldest of six kids, so I had a good number of cousins. We knew that my grandfather, my father’s dad, was French Canadian, and that for whatever reason, he’d changed his last name. We knew he couldn’t speak a word of English when he came to Ontario from Granby, Quebec, and that Granny had taught him English.

Grandpa always loved to play with his children, and later his grandchildren. He always liked to take us all out for ice cream, and since there were so many of us, we rode in the pick up truck, a bunch of kids back in the cargo-compartment – it was always a lot of fun! Sometimes we’d go out for ice cream many times in a day. Our parents knew exactly what we were doing, but pretended not to know.

He liked to break into the freezer and find Granny’s cookies and eat them with his kids back when my Dad was growing up. On my Dad’s birthday one year, before I was born, my Grandpa and my brother found one of his boxes of chocolates and decided they’d have “just one each”, but by the end there was none left!

He did a lot of work with wood and made us a lot of toys. He once made me a beanie babies holder out of wood for all my beanie babies, and he made me a toy truck out of wood, since I loved to play with cars. He made my brother a bird house and me a toy sword out of wood. He was a very playful, funny man.

But he never discussed the past. He wouldn’t speak French, and he wouldn’t tell us anything about our family history. My father did not pursue French growing up since his dad would not help him with his homework. My father knew he had French Canadian heritage, but culturally he was English Canadian.

My mother, who is English Canadian herself without a drop of French Canadian blood, insisted to my father that her children would be in the French immersion programs in school. My father did not see much point, but since she insisted, we went into the French immersion schools as young children. She wanted us to be bilingual.

I started out in Montessori school, and learned French at school since I was two years old. Then I had a tutor just before French immersion school (grade 1) began so I could get ahead. When I was in French Immersion I excelled, and French became my normal, and in fact, my preferred language. I’m unique in my family that way.

The other kids in the family (cousins) went to English school, while we went to French immersion, my brother and I. But my brother dropped out and switched to English and doesn’t use French anymore, while for me it’s still my preferred language. I identify as a Francophone because of this; for example even in English, I stubbornly put the dollar sign at the end of the number as we do in French! I don’t know why Grandpa tried to quit being French Canadian, but I know that French Canadian is just who I am because of my upbringing and it’s something I won’t quit.

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